Monday 3 September 2012

A Literary Tour: Amy Dillwyn & The Rebecca Rioter

On a glorious Saturday in July, the first sunny day after weeks and weeks of rain, 49 people boarded a bus on the trail of Amy Dillwyn and her 1880 novel, The Rebecca Rioter

21 July 2012 
The historical events at the centre of the book are the attacks on the Tollgates at Bolgoed and Pontardulais, but in fact the imaginative topography of The Rebecca Rioter is firmly centred on Fairwood Moor, Gower and Amy's own home, Hendrefoilan House.  Our trip followed these contours of Dillwyn’s inspiration. 

A brief stop at Upper Killay (home in Dillwyn's novel to a rough crowd of poachers, thieves and drunks) and then we swept across the cattle grid and on to the moor.  In 1843, Amy Dillwyn’s father and uncle, both JPs, had spent many a fruitless night patrolling the moor looking for Rebecca or waiting at a nearby Inn for action.  In her novel, Amy Dillwyn turns the tables on the magistrates, describing how the rioters outwitted the authorities and covertly watched their discomfiture when Rebecca eluded them.

Debra John & Kirsti Bohata on Fairwood Moor 

Back at the centre of Amy Dillwyn’s world, Hendrefoilan House, David Painting gave a talk on the architechtural significance of the grade II listed building built by Lewis Llewelyn Dillwyn and described by his daughter as an 'Elysium on earth'.  Amy Dillwyn had run the household since 1866 (when her mother died) and had managed the Home Farm for many years, but when her father died in 1892 the house was passed down the male line and she was left without a home.  Worse still was that her father died in debt and the entire contents of the house, from boot brushes to her grandfather’s gold medals, was auctioned off in a three-day sale cum visitor attraction - the auctioneers ran conveyances from Swansea and crowds came to see the family effects sold off.

Dr David Painting in front of Hendrefoilan House
Over lunch, Kirsti Bohata gave a talk on the autobiographical and historical background to The Rebecca Rioter, observing that many of the actions and incidents recorded in her father’s account of the Pontardulais riot (he was there as one of the magistrates trying to arrest the rioters) reappear in Dillwyn's novel but this time attributed to the hero and Rebeccaite, Evan Williams.

Debra John reading from Amy Dillwyn's journal

In the afternoon a spectacular drive over the moor and over Cefyn Bryn was broken only by the timely appearance of the descendants of the ponies which Dillwyn includes in her novel – Evan and his fellow Rebeccaites use the ponies as transport to the toll gates at Bolgoed and Pontardulais some 8 miles away – (and some cattle with no literary antecedents that I know of).  A brisk walk through the park and we reached Penrice Castle – the old Norman ruins in which Evan and his friend hide while on the run – and the ‘new’ house, also named Penrice Castle where Amy Dillwyn often stayed with her friend Olive Talbot.  The Talbot family’s principal home was Margam but Olive stayed at Penrice quite frequently, and no wonder for it must be one of the most beautiful locations in Wales.  The present incumbent, Thomas Methuen-Campbell, is descended from the Talbots and he gave a finely judged and engaging history of the house and family before leading the group through the formal gardens at the front of the house (and in an impromptu act of kindness, drove a few privileged members of the tour back up the not inconsiderable hill!).

Thomas Methuen-Campbell, Penrice Castle
Some heroic driving by our bus driver (of whom more below) and we reached Oxwich Bay for a much-needed cream tea - leaving just in time to meet going up the same bus in the same impassable point as we had on the way down!  Some good-natured muttering and serious maneuvering later we escaped the gridlock and headed back to Swansea.  A huge thanks to Mike, the driver, who very fittingly is a former soldier in the Royal Regiment of Wales.  Their motto, Gwell Angau Na Chywilydd, Better Death than Dishonour, is the same as that given by Amy Dillwyn to the Rebeccaites in her novel (she translates it as as 'better death than shame') and it is the guiding principle of Evan's sacrifice of his own life in order to remain true to his beloved Gwenllian.

Gwell angau na chywilydd: Mike from Davies Coaches
Debra John reading from The Rebecca Rioter, Oxwich Bay
The final stop was St Paul’s Church in Sketty, where Amy Dillwyn’s ashes (she was a firm believer in cremation long before it was popular or even legal in Britain) are interred in the family grave (it's on the right, second row back as you approach the church from the Lychgate).  

Some final readings from Amy's journal on the subject of immortality and commemoration brought the tour to a fitting close.

St Paul's Churchyard, Sketty
Thanks to everyone who came on the tour and made it such a lovely day. Special thanks to Debra John, Thomas Methuen-Campbell, David Painting, Liza Penn-Thomas, Rowan O'Neill, Sian Williams, Steve Williams and Bronwen Price.  With financial support from the AHRC and CREW, Swansea University.

More photos are on Flikr.

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